Category Archives: Literary Fiction

Adversity and Imagination: Two Book Reviews

Two Faces of Adversity


Adversity and Imagination: Two Book Reviews


I’ve had time to read two books since I last posted here. In each, life deals a woman a hand of adversity she must play.  Of the two, the book I liked best was the memoir of a military mom, first published in 1958 —  Rough Road Home: A true and moving story of one woman’s courage under adversity.  Melissa’s  grief and loss are sudden and unexpected.  The trials of raising her mentally deficient child are constant.

In the second book, a novel, Valencia and Valentine, a woman struggles through adulthood with  OCD.  She, too, lives with loss, but also struggles with guilt.

Adversity in Rough Road Home by Melissa Mather

In 1950 Melissa and her husband Bob were living at Fort Monroe in Virginia with their four children in barely adequate housing. The oldest children were eight-year-old twin boys, one of whom would always have the mental abilities of an eighteen-month-old child. That would be Mike. Pat was his normal twin brother. The middle child, son Chris, was six, and daughter Kitty was three. Mike couldn’t talk, but Kitty made up for it.

As the book opens, Bob learns from his higher-ups that Mike is being kicked off the post. Bob is about to be sent to Korea. Mike goes temporarily to live with Melissa’s parents as Melissa and extended family members go to prepare  a dilapidated farmhouse for occupancy. She had been planning to move somewhere isolated with the children while Bob was in Korea — somewhere Mike couldn’t get into trouble. She had bought the small farm in Vermont. Here’s how she describes the house:

It was a haphazard house painted a tired lemon yellow with windows scattered casually wherever needed or convenient. It had the comfortable settled-down look of old Vermont farmhouses, no line exactly horizontal or exactly vertical, but “more or less”….It was everything an army barracks is not.

Longin: The Friend Who Was Family

Longin was an honorary member of the family. He was Polish. His own family had been wiped out during the war. He was in a German labor camp when Bob’s unit liberated it in 1945 and he became a displaced person. Bob had befriended him and helped him get a visa and transportation to the United States.

mugs friends are like family you choosemugs friends are like family you choosemugs friends are like family you choose

Once home, Bob was stationed at Fort Knox and Longin moved in with them to help with Mike. Bob treated Longin like a younger brother. When Bob was transferred to Fort Monroe, Longin joined the paratroopers.

The Plane Crash

After Mike went to live with Melissa’s parents,  Bob and Melissa had two months at home without him. Bob and Melissa grew closer, and Bob could spend quality time with his remaining sons. Then the Army sent Bob and some other officers on an inspection trip to the West Coast and their plane crashed. There were no survivors.

Longin, who was stationed at Fort Bragg,  got a three-day pass to drive Melissa and the children to Melissa’s parents in New Jersey where they  stayed until they finished making the the complicated funeral arrangements . His three-day pass extended into a month’s emergency leave.

Then Longin and Melissa drove to the farmhouse so they could work until the funeral.   When they got there they discovered how much needed to be done. The furnace and sink needed replacing and new wiring had to be put in. The house was in such bad shape it wasn’t fit to live in.

A few days later Melissa and the boys  with other family  members went to the funeral at Arlington Cemetery. Longin stayed behind to keep preparing the house for human habitation. Some of the neighbors also helped. Soon after the funeral was over and the family returned home,  Melissa discovered she was pregnant. Melissa was happy to still have part of Bob with her. Longin went home and extended family came to help every weekend.

Inspirational Quote on Adversity MagnetInspirational Quote on Adversity MagnetInspirational Quote on Adversity Magnet

Life on the Farm

As the family tried to settle in, more and more of the house began to fall apart. The pump broke, the roof leaked, and the house sagged so badly they couldn’t shut the front door. The workmen she hired fleeced her. She wrote to Longin that things were out of control.  He got a compassionate discharge to come and help. I was amazed at how many handyman skills he had.

I will not go into all the details of the hardships they faced and how they solved their problems. Handling Mike was one of their biggest problems because there was no way to teach him. Back then there was no help for children with such severe disabilities. He could not go to school.

What I Learned from Reading This Book

  • How hard it was to make a living farming
  • How little support there was for families with a mentally disabled child.
  • How little patience, understanding, and tolerance there was when such children acted out
  • How little human nature changes in such things as political and neighbor-to-neighbor conflicts

The author’s style was delightful. Melissa was resourceful, brave, and hard-working. So was Longin. The family was closely knit. You’ve probably already guessed that by the end Longin would marry Melissa.

Adversity and Imagination: Two Book Reviews

I would recommend this book to anyone facing adversity, to new widows with small children, to military families, and to anyone else who enjoys memoirs and a well-written story about the triumphs of real people over what life throws at them. Although there is sorrow and loss, the book is also laced with laughter and plenty of love.

Grief and Loss: Reviews of Recently Read Novels

Valencia and Valentine: Obsession, Compulsion, and Imagination

The Rough Road Home is primarily about overcoming grief and physical hardships.  Valencia and Valentine by Suzy Krause is about living with Obsessive Compulsive Disorder and retreating to an imagined world.

We first meet Valencia at work in the West Park Services Call Center where she is a very unhappy debt collector. The first thing we learn about her is that she ‘didn’t think about death too often.’ Ironically, death is almost all she thinks about.  Her imagination  frequently focuses on how, when, and where she might die. That’s one reason she is afraid to fly. She regularly visits her therapist, Louise.

Here’s how the author describes the call center:

The only sounds in the building were shuffling feet and hundreds of hushed, one-sided telephone conversations. . . . Everyone seemed either uneasy or bored. . . it was less like a penitentiary and more like a hospital; you got a feeling of dread in your stomach when you walked in. You got the sense that that people inside were all sick or dying or dead.

Mrs. Valentine Also Thinks about Death Too Much

Valencia and ValentineValencia and Valentine

She’s eighty-seven years old and lives alone in her apartment. Her best friend Mrs, Davies lives across the hall from her and is about the same  age. They have been friends for many years and call each other by their last names to remind themselves of their dead husbands.

As the book progresses and we learn more about Mrs. Valentine and her memories and flashbacks, we begin to suspect she and Valencia have or will have some sort of relationship to each other. Both are bored with their lives, think about death a lot, and have a vivid imagination.

Saying  more about this book could spoil the ending for anyone who actually reads to the end. This book was free as my Kindle First Read this month. I wish I had chosen a different one since this book was  a bit too far out for me to relate to. If you read it, your opinion might be different.

I was sick when I read it and that might have influenced my response to the book. I just couldn’t get interested in wallowing around in all the obsessive thoughts about death. One-sided conversations with people who don’t exist don’t thrill me much either. I finished the book, but it fell flat. I could not connect with it and  I found the constant back and forth between the lives of Valencia and Mrs. Valentine confusing.

My Conclusions

The Rough Road Home held my interest all the way through. It provided an example of a close family working through very difficult circumstances and not giving up. Best of all, it was true.

Valencia and Valentine showed me what unhealthy minds and relationships look like. I’m glad it was fiction. I wish it had been more interesting. The plot is like a yoyo between Valencia and Mrs. Valentine as they live out their compulsions, fears, and relationships. Nothing  much changes for what seems like forever. When we finally learn the truth at the end, it doesn’t really surprise us much.

Melissa in The Rough Road Home showed the sort of strength and spirit in adversity that helped her overcome her great losses. In contrast, in Valencia and Valentine we see a crippled spirit whose friends are imaginary.  She obsesses about death daily and considers continuing to live an accomplishment .  She knows she is reinventing her life history with her made-up stories and that the people she often talks to are rarely real. But they are real to her because her mind makes them real.

Both Melissa and Mrs. Valentine are widows. Melissa has a real life and tackles making what’s left of it work in spite of the adversity. Mrs. Valentine has feared death and adversity all her life. She is a fictional character who manufactures her own fiction to make her life liveable. Maybe you will enjoy Valencia and Valentine more than I did if you want to give it a chance. It is one of Amazon’s best sellers,  and many readers gave it glowing reviews.

Or if you want more realistic information on OCD one of the books below might be a more interesting read.

 Brain Lock, Twentieth Anniversary Edition: Free Yourself from Obsessive-Compulsive Behavior Overcoming Unwanted Intrusive Thoughts: A CBT-Based Guide to Getting Over Frightening, Obsessive, or Disturbing Thoughts Overcoming OCD: A Journey to Recovery Turtles All the Way Down

Grief and Loss: Reviews of Recently Read Novels

Grief and Loss Affect Everyone Differently

Grief impacts individually uniquely. A sudden death in an accident or suicide affects the survivors differently than a slow death from cancer or dementia. A violent death is different than a natural peaceful one.  The type of loss often affects how survivors will respond. So do the beliefs of the dying person and their family about an afterlife. Grief has many faces, depending on the person grieving. Only one character in these three novels seems to value religion.

Grief and Loss: Reviews of Recently Read Novels

Luke, the protagonist of When I’m Gone, a widower with young children, has watched his wife die of cancer.  In The High Cost of Flowers, an already dysfunctional family with adult children deals with a mother who has dementia.  In The Storied Life of A.J Fikry, a widowed bookseller discovers a toddler a mother has left in his store’s stacks with a note, and it changes his life.

When I’m Gone, by Emily Bleeker

Luke, arrives home from his wife Natalie’s funeral with his children — Will, 14, May, 9, and Clayton, 3. Will’s eyes are red and wet. May says she’s hungry. Clayton is still sleeping in the car seat.  Natalie’s mother, Grandma Terry, has left food for the family before making her escape. She has never liked Luke and had never wanted Natalie to marry him because Luke’s father was an alcoholic wife-beater.

Natalie had planned the perfect funeral for herself and took care of all the details before she died. She knew that Luke would have trouble coping with the house and children after her death so she planned that, too.  When Luke walks into the house he finds the first of many almost daily letters from Natalie on the floor in front of the mail slot. They were definitely from Natalie, but who was delivering them?

The continuing letters help Luke cope with his life as a widower. Natalie’s best friend Annie helps out a lot, but she has her own secret.

Natalie knew Luke would need more help with the children than Annie could provide, so in one of her letters, she urged him to hire 21-year-old Jessie to watch the children after school. Why was it so important to her that Luke hire Jessie?

Luke also keeps running into a Dr. Neal in Natalie’s letters and as a contact on her phone. He doesn’t like the jealous feelings and suspicions that rise up in him. Who is this Dr. Neal? Why was he so important to Natalie?

Follow Luke and Annie’s grief journey as they get to know each other better. Find out Annie’s secret and who has been putting Natalie’s letters through the mail slot. Discover the secrets only Dr. Neal can reveal. Don’t miss When I’m Gone.

The High Cost of Flowers by Cynthia Kraack

Dementia is hard enough to for a family to deal with when there is an abundance of love between family members. When siblings alienate each other and fight constantly, it’s almost impossible to share the care and decision making.


Family matriarch Katherine Kemper and her neighborhood friend Janie had done everything together before Katherine had a stroke. The stroke left Katherine with dementia. Her husband Art tries to care for her at home with some help from Janie and his children Todd and Carrie.

As the book opens, Art reflects on the old pre-stroke Katherine he loved and wishes she were back. His old life of puttering in the garden and seeing friends is gone. He feels the pain and frustration of all who care for loved ones with dementia.

Art’s Life as Katherine’s Caregiver

Janie tries to help out, but the demented Katherine berates her and accuses her of stealing her diamond and trying to poison her with the food she often brings over.  In the first chapter, Janie has brought over some chili, and Katherine refuses to eat it. She often has tantrums now.

As Art prepares to heat the chili, Katherine says: ‘That’s not one of our containers. Did that woman make that food? Are you going to eat out of it or is it poisoned just for me?’ Katherine is itching for a fight Art doesn’t want.

Grief and Loss: Reviews of Recently Read Novels
Janie tries to help by bringing chili for Art and Katherine


She crashes a soup bowl on the end of the granite counter sending shards flying everywhere. Then she stomps on the bowls, cuts her feet, and attacks Art with a piece of the glass. She then smashes another dish and picks up pieces of it to throw in Art’s face.  One piece connects with Art’s forehead. When he demands to know what she’s doing, she replies:

I’m trying to make you ugly so women won’t  want you. So you won’t put me away. I want you to bleed. like me.

Then she cries and reaches out for him. He gets a sharp pain in his chest and calls 911.


Meanwhile, their estranged older daughter Rachel is running along the shore of Lake Michigan in Chicago. She fights loneliness after her separation from her husband David since he had an affair. She is a trained therapist who has written family self-help books.

Later that evening she sits pondering the changes in her life as she eats dinner and works at home.  Her parents’ physician, Dr. Wagner calls to inform her that both her parents are in the hospital and her siblings are both out of town. He asks Rachel to come to Minnesota and help out. He wants to place Katherine in a care facility for patients with dementia. Katherine, as well as Rachel’s siblings, have always opposed this, so Rachel anticipates a family fight.

A Portrait of a Dysfunctional Family

Katherine has always been domineering and abusive. Both her husband and children have been her victims. Rachel’s siblings Todd and Carrie are already alcoholics when we meet them in the book. Catherine has told Rachel not to call her “Mom” and doesn’t want her around. At family functions, Catherine has tantrums mixed with episodes of dementia.

Grief and Loss: Reviews of Recently Read Novels
Todd and Carrie are already alcoholics

It’s evident to the reader that Catherine is too sick for  Art to be able to continue to care for her at home. Art, Todd, and Carrie try to pretend this isn’t true. After Catherine attacks Art with the broken glass, he realizes she needs more care than he can give and Art and Rachel move her to a care facility. Rachel supports him, but her siblings still resist.

They blame Rachel for moving to Chicago where she’s not close enough to help. She has really moved to keep herself and her son Dylan away from the Kemper family dysfunction. Except for Rachel, all of the adult Kempers drink too much. That’s how they deal with the family problems.

Families in Crisis, Hurting People

Author Cynthia Kraack offers us a window into the unhappy lives of the characters. We see their family dysfunction clearly whenever the family or siblings gather. It’s one thing to know about dementia and abuse intellectually. It’s another to see it happening as family members push each other’s buttons and use words to manipulate and hurt each other. Sibling rivalry hangs over all family interactions.

We watch as Katherine goes in and out of the real world within seconds. One minute she’s lucid and the next she’s wondering who that stranger in her room is or seeing long-dead family members around the dinner table. She may become suddenly violent, then wonder how her victim got hurt, and then cry like a baby.  An observer might see all these behaviors within an hour. We see Katherine’s pain and confusion and her family’s pain as they watch.

Learn to recognize early signs of dementia in the video below.

My Personal Response to the Book

This book grabbed my attention from the first pages. The characters were so well developed you could almost predict what they would say or do by the middle of the book. The plot, though, had some twists I didn’t expect. I won’t give any spoilers.

The focal point of the book was Katherine and her dominance in the family. Everyone had to focus on her when in her presence. She was the elephant in the room when she wasn’t present. Ironically, at the end of the book, when Katherine finally dies, what’s left of the family is celebrating July 4 together, and no one was answering their phones when the nursing home called to notify them of her death. They had started a new tradition of turning them off when together.

I would recommend this book to those who have grown up in dysfunctional families or who give or have given care to those with dementia. Those who have alcoholics in their families or are grieving lost loved ones will probably identify with characters in this book, too. The book may also help those who need to make a decision about getting institutional care for a loved one unable to continue living at home.

Of all the main characters, the only ones I might have enjoyed spending time with were Rachel and Art. The others would tend to suck away my energy.

The book is well-written except for a couple of typos in the eBook that weren’t caught by an editor.  The plot moves swiftly and many of the characters become more functional as the book progresses. Those who depend on alcohol and or drugs find that they aren’t a lasting cure for pain. Those who are willing to forgive hurts and face their problems honestly discover there is hope.

Grief and Loss: Reviews of Recently Read Novels

Get The High Cost of Flowers at Amazon for a revealing peek into the lives of a dysfunctional family caring for their mother who is no longer herself.

The Storied Life of A. J. Fikry: A Novel

No bookseller or bibliophile should miss this book by Gabrielle Zevin. Every chapter is prefaced with A. J. Fikry’s thoughts on specific stories which turn out to be significant in the plot. And who is A .J. Fikry?


A. J. Fikry is a grieving bookseller who lost his wife less than two years prior. She died in an accident driving an author home from a signing. He’s become a grumpy 39-year-old man who tries to drown his grief in drink, and he’s lost interest in his life and his bookstore Island Books on Alice Island. He has a very rare copy of Poe’s Tamerlane which he plans to sell someday to finance his retirement. Meanwhile, he keeps it in a locked glass case in the store below the apartment where he now lives alone. He has few real friends but very specific book tastes.

A Bad Start for a Relationship

Amelia Loman, a new sales rep with Knightley Press in the Boston area, is about to call on Fikry for the first time. She is the replacement for former rep, Harvey Rhodes. Although she has made an appointment to see Fikry, he doesn’t seem to be aware of it. She gets off to a bad start on the way to his office when her sleeve catches on a stack of books and knocks down about a hundred of them.  Fikry hears the commotion, approaches her, and asks, ‘Who the hell are you?’ He tells her to leave.

Grief and Loss: Reviews of Recently Read Novels

A.J. says they have no meeting. He’d never gotten word of Harvey’s death. He reluctantly does let her in so she can pitch Knightley’s winter list. She doesn’t expect to get an order. She begins to tell him about her favorite book, Late Bloomer, but he says it’s not for him. He said Harvey knew what he liked and Amelia challenges him to share his likes and dislikes with her. He does.

Grief Leads to the Loss of Tamerlane

Later that night A.J. regrets treating Amelia so badly. He goes up to his apartment and reminisces about past book discussions with Harvey. He puts a frozen dinner in the microwave to heat, as usual, and while waiting he goes to the basement to flatten book boxes.

By the time he gets upstairs again his dinner is ruined. He throws it against the wall as he realizes that although Harvey meant a lot to him, he probably meant nothing to Harvey. On further reflection, he realizes that one problem of living alone is that no one even cares if you throw your dinner against the wall.

He pours a glass of wine, puts a cloth on the table, and retrieves Tamerlane from its climate-controlled case. Then he places it across the table from his chair and leans it against the chair where his wife Nic used to sit. Then he proposes a toast to it:

‘Cheers, you piece of crap,’ he says to the slim volume.

Then he gets drunk and passes out at the table. He “hears” his wife telling him to go to bed. One reason he drinks is to get to this state where he can talk to Nic again. `

Grief and Loss: Reviews of Recently Read Novels

When he wakes the next morning he finds a clean kitchen, a wine bottle in the trash, and no Tamerlane. The bookcase is still open. He hadn’t insured the book because he had acquired it a couple of months after Nic had died. In his grief, he forgot to insure it.

He runs to the police station and reports the theft to recently divorced Chief Lambiase. He admits everyone he knows is aware that he had the book. The police find no prints and the investigation goes nowhere. A.J. knows he’ll never see the book again.


After news of the theft gets out,  Island Bookstore’s business picks up. After a day of rather difficult customers, A.J. closes the store and goes running. He doesn’t bother to lock the door. He doesn’t have anything worth locking up anymore.

J.J.’s review of Bret Harte’s Story “The Luck of Roaring Camp” introduces this chapter.  In his review, he calls it an “Overly sentimental tale of a mining camp that adopts an ‘Ingin baby’ whom they dub Luck.” He admits not liking it much in college, but that it had brought him to tears as an adult.

When A.J. returns from his run, he hears cries coming from the children’s section. As he investigates the source, he sees a toddler holding the store’s only copy of Where the Wild Things Are.  As A. J. asks her where her mother is, she cries and holds out her arms to him. Of course, he picks her up. Then he sees the Elmo doll on the floor with a note attached.  The child is two-year-old Maya and the mother wants her to be raised in the bookstore.

A.J. reports the abandoned child to Chief Lambiase. Lambiase and A. J. decide that A.J. will keep the child until Monday when social services will arrive. The next day, the mother’s body washes to shore.

Are you wondering

  • What will happen to Maya?
  • Who is Maya’s father?
  • What happened to Tamerlane?

It’s fairly easy to guess the answers to the first two questions. The clues are there. As to the last, I don’t want to be a spoiler.

Grief and Loss: Reviews of Recently Read Novels

My Critique

I will admit I loved the book, but I didn’t love all the characters.   The author introduces Maya’s father early in the book. I didn’t like him then and didn’t change my opinion. He appeared in the book long before A.J. found Maya.

Grief and loss appear in many forms: bereavement, infidelity, suicide, terminal illness, and material loss. Yet there is also love. We watch as love for Maya transforms A. J. Fikry as surely as “Luck” transformed a mining camp’s residents.

Bibliophiles, writers,  and booksellers will relate to A. J.’s constant references to and opinions of well-known books.  He also describes events in his own life in terms of writing techniques and plots. Booksellers will be quite familiar with the problem customers Fikry deals with. They may or may not share his opinion of book signing parties.

All parents of toddlers will relate to the challenge that faces A.J. as he learns to care for Maya.  Foster and adoptive parents will enjoy watching A. J. interact with Jenny, the young social worker who is stuck with Maya’s complicated case. By this time Maya and A.J. had developed a relationship. He was not ready to put her in the system unless he had a say in her placement. You can imagine how that went.

There is too much gold in the book to display in this small space. The characters are very well-developed. Several subplots and characters I have not described will also captivate readers. I loved the book even more the second time I read it. Please don’t miss this treasure if you love people or books.

Don’t miss our other reviews that also deal with how people face grief and loss.


Grief and Loss: Reviews of Recently Read Novels
Please Share.



Wish Come True: Portrait of a Dysfunctional Family